Every preacher has asked this question at some point in their teaching ministry. They know the example of Paul from 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 “to preach Christ crucified” yet there are times it feels like fitting a square peg into a round hole. They know that Jesus “explained to [His disciples] what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” in Luke 24:44, but they lack confidence in making these connections from the pulpit. In light of these difficulties, most pastors fall into three categories.
There are some pastors who are convicted about the importance of Christocentric preaching but don’t have the tools to execute it well. This approach leads them to haphazardly allegorize the Old Testament in order to preach the Gospel, even though the connection is tenuous at best.
Other preachers will settle for what is classified as “God-centered” preaching, which avoids reference to Christ altogether in favor of the generic “God.” The risk in this approach is that the congregation may come to devalue the Old Testament by failing to see any connection to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Lastly, there are those who avoid teaching from the Old Testament for fear that they will be guilty of misrepresenting the Old Testament no matter what they do. They are crippled by the fear of what they don’t know.
It is clear that none of these options are ideal, yet this is the reality that many pastors face on a weekly basis. One of the greatest needs among pastors around the United States is a responsible hermeneutical method for preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Thankfully, there is a better way forward.
A responsible methodology:
The Redemptive-Historical Christocentric Interpretation
One of the foremost experts on preaching from the Old Testament is Dr. Sidney Greidanus. Dr. Greidanus is the professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of numerous books about preaching. One of his crowning achievements was Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Approach.
In this book, Greidanus proposes a model of preaching called the Redemptive-Historical Christocentric Interpretation. Greidanus outlines his method by saying the “redemptive-historical interpretation seeks to understand an Old Testament passage first within its own historical context. Only after we have heard a passage the way Israel heard it can we move on to understand this message in the broad contexts of the whole canon and the whole of redemptive history. It is at this point that the questions concerning Jesus Christ, the center, emerge.”[i]
There is tremendous value in this interpretative approach to the Old Testament. The redemptive-historical interpretation allows the preacher and his audience to consider the original context of the passage that is under examination. The first step in this approach allows the pastor to rest assured knowing he has not violated the historical context. The second step affords the preacher great liberty in that he is able to consider how the Old Testament text he is preaching fits within the redemptive flow of history, which culminates in the person and work of Christ.
Greidanus has developed a model of interpretation that could empower many pastors to engage the Old Testament with fresh eyes. It behooves preachers to examine the intricacies of this interpretative model more closely. Though it is impossible to cover all aspects of Greidanus’ interpretive approach, it may be practical to outline a handful of practical ways the preacher can implement this interpretative methodology in their preaching.
The way of redemptive-historical progression
Greidanus notes that the way of redemptive-historical progression is “the foundational way of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Redemptive history, or kingdom history, is the bedrock that supports all the other ways that lead to Christ in the New Testament. Today, redemptive history is also called the ‘metanarrative’ or ‘the Story.’”[ii]
Greidanus says that the preacher can view the entire Scripture in relation to 4 pivotal events in redemptive history: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. When the preacher takes a bird’s eye view of the Scriptures, it becomes more apparent that the Old Testament is a stream that flows towards redemption in Jesus and the New Creation.
The way of promise fulfillment
One can go back as far as Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:1-3 to see the need and the hope for a Messiah. In fact, the entirety of the Old Testament is saturated with this idea of Messianic hope. Greidanus observed this in his book and asked the question, “So how should preachers today preach Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises?”[iii]
Greidanus says that the preacher must follow two basic rules of interpreting Old Testament promises. The first rule is that there are some promises that God fulfills progressively. He cites the example of Peter in Acts 2:16-21 who refers to Christ fulfilling the words of the prophet Joel. Note that there are still elements of this prophecy that have yet to be fulfilled such as Acts 2:20. Greidanus makes the observation that Old Testament prophecy can be fulfilled progressively over time.
The second rule Greidanus proposes is that the preacher must go from the promise identified in the Old Testament to its unique fulfillment in Christ and then back to the Old Testament text. His rationale for this rule is twofold. The value in moving to the New Testament fulfillment of Christ properly locates the reason for Christian hope. The value in moving back to the Old Testament is that the preacher can more fully flesh out the particular hopes of the Old Testament saints that are not fully explained through reference to the New Testament text.
The way of typology
The way of typology is underutilized because it is often associated with sloppy allegorical interpretations of Christ in the Old Testament. Greidanus points out that typology is quite different from allegorical interpretations. An allegorical interpretation can make the Old Testament text “find Christ” wherever it wishes, while typology is “limited to discovering specific analogies along the axis of God’s acts in redemptive history as revealed in Scripture.”[iv]
There is some debate about whether or not a typology of Christ in the Old Testament are predictive or simply retrospective. Greidanus sees this as a false dichotomy and says “some Old Testament types are predictive and some are not.”[v] For instance, it is not readily apparent that David “predicted” that there would be a greater king in the future (speaking of Jesus). On the other hand, there are Old Testament types that have some predictive value within the historical context of the Old Testament Scriptures such as the Passover and the sacrificial system. The work of the preacher is to sort these out in his exegesis of the passage.
The way of analogy
The way of analogy is a common tool that preachers use to relate the Old Testament text to the situation of the present-day church. Many preachers do this naturally but do not consider deeply the reason they are able to use analogy in their preaching. When we consider the heritage of the Gentiles in the Old Testament, they had no relationship with God because they were not part of the covenant community (Israel). There was no basis of analogy between the Israelites relationship with God and the Gentiles’ “relationship with God.”
In the New Testament, the good news of Jesus radically changes the situation. When Gentiles come to faith in Christ, they are grafted into the family of God and become heirs of Abraham’s promise (Romans 11:17, Galatians 3:29). The point in this thought exercise is to demonstrate that the basis for drawing analogies in the Old Testament to the present day is based on Jesus Christ alone. It is important for congregations to have a basic awareness of this fact when the preacher uses analogies from the Old Testament.[vi]
The way of longitudinal themes
The way of preaching longitudinal themes is rather straightforward. The preacher must work to identify redemptive themes in the Old Testament text and consider how this reveals something about God’s redemptive plan and character.
Greidanus provides an example of Jacob at Bethel in Genesis 28:10-22. One of the key themes in this passage is that God will be with Jacob wherever he goes. Interestingly enough, one can trace this theme of God’s presence throughout Israel’s history. In Exodus, God is with his people. In the conquest, God is with his people. However, the ultimate example of God being with his people is expressed through Jesus Christ. Jesus is Immanuel which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).[vii]
When the preacher is in his study he must ask himself, “Does this Old Testament text relate any message about God’s redemptive plan and character? If so, how is this exemplified in the person and work of Christ?” This exercise will help preachers develop the skill of identifying longitudinal themes.
The way of New Testament references
At this point, a preacher may feel overwhelmed by the interpretative options presented to them. They may have limited time and resources to do the hard work that is required of them to identify these themes on their own. The way of New Testament references helps the preacher in this predicament.
The New Testament provides numerous links between Christ and the Old Testament. First, they can confirm or deny the preacher’s hunch about an Old Testament text’s redemptive elements. Second, they can illuminate new and surprising ways in which the Old Testament parallels the New Testament. One resource that is helpful in identifying these quotes and allusions in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale.
The way of contrast
The final way of preaching Christ from the Old Testament is by way of contrast. It does not take a biblical scholar to notice that there is some serious contrast between the message of the Old Testament texts and the New Testament. Greidanus points to examples such as the New Testament reversal on circumcision (Genesis 17:12-14, Acts 15:28-29) and the modification of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:10, 1 Corinthians 16:2).
Greidanus writes that “the way of contrast clearly centers on Christ, for he is primarily responsible for any change between the messages of the Old Testament and those of the New.”[viii] The way of contrast is a helpful tool for the preacher because it can demonstrate how the problems of the Old Testament such as human depravity find their ultimate solution in Jesus Christ.
My prayer for you, the preacher, is that you would find a renewed focus in preaching Christ from the Old Testament. You have a unique opportunity to preach the entire counsel of God’s redemptive plan for humanity that is prefigured in the Old Testament and realized through Christ Jesus our Lord.
[i] Greidanus, 228
[ii] Ibid, 234
[iii] Ibid, 241
[iv] Ibid, 249
[v] Ibid, 251
[vi] Ibid, 262-63
[vii] Ibid, 267
[viii] Ibid, 272
Stape Patterson serves as the student minister at Northbrook Baptist Church in Cullman, Ala. He is an alumnus of Shorter University (BA), New Orleans Seminary (MDiv), and is a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Seminary. Stape’s family of origin resides in Newnan, where his father, Jimmy, serves as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church.